Death in St. Petersburg by Tasha Alexander is the 12th book in the Lady Emily Mysteries series.
From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder. Upon closer approach, however, the broken body, delicate and graceful, revealed the truth of the scene in its full horror.
The victim’s pale skin, almost translucent, had been slashed and desecrated in an act of inhumane violence. But even so, her beauty could not be denied.
Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.
Lady Emily is enjoying the magic of snowy St. Petersburg, attending balls, high-society dinners, and ballets with her old friend Cécile while her husband, Colin Hargreaves, does his usual shadowy, secretive work as an agent for the English crown. The beauties of Russia have thoroughly charmed the lady detective—right up to the moment she finds a dead prima ballerina lying in the snow.
Irina Semenova Nemetseva—known to one and all as Irusya—was stabbed between acts of her debut performance in Swan Lake. Still dressed in her costume, unprotected by the harsh winter cold, she’s found with, of all things, a Fabergé egg that belongs to the Empress.
Her murder shocks the city; the young dancer was a meteoric and universally beloved star of ballet. And with her death, lifelong friend Katenka suddenly has the spotlight. But does that mean the young ballerina is involved?
“Did Irusya’s immediate success make things more difficult for her? Was she unable to dance without making comparisons to her friend? This you must ask her. No one else can know.”
“Did their friendship wane over the years?”
“Not so far as Irusya could tell,” she said. “It was she who insisted that Ekaterina be her understudy for Swan Lake. Irusya did everything she could to forward her friend’s career.” She shrugged again. “Even die.”
Katenka seems to be grieving for her friend, but Lady Emily will have to find out if that grief is genuine as she is quickly hired by Irusya’s secret lover, Prince Vasilii, to uncover the truth.
Things quickly get more complicated when talk begins of a daring thief targeting the rich, and Emily realizes her old friend the flamboyant Sebastian Capet is running amok—and may be connected to the Fabergé egg found with Irusya.
I had encountered Sebastian Capet, as he liked to style himself, first in London, years ago, when he had caused a sensation by stealing a shocking number of items that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. Later, in France, our paths crossed again. No longer looking for objects owned by the ill-fated queen, he had embarked on what he viewed as a noble mission, painting his illegal activities not as theft but as the righting of wrongs. He was no Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; his goals were more subjective. If he felt someone owned but did not truly appreciate a work of art, jewelry, or anything else he deemed interesting, he would (as he said) liberate it and give it to someone he judged more deserving. I could well imagine him setting his sights on the imperial collection. He had decidedly mixed opinions of royalty.
Since this is 1900 Russia, the plot naturally turns towards revolutionaries and communist ideals. Katenka’s older brother Lev is a passionate crusader against the bourgeoisie and, coincidentally, was the ill-fated Irusya’s first love. Katenka herself is involved with another rebel, Lev’s best friend, Mitya, and there may be more political dissent hidden inside the ballet corps.
But is communism, again, just a red herring?
As with past Lady Emily mysteries, Alexander gives us a dual narrative, flashing between Emily’s first-person POV in the “present” as she investigates the murder and the third-person story of Katenka and Irusya’s childhood as they climb to prima ballerina status.
Though Irusya is already dead by the time we read the first paragraph, she’s nevertheless a dynamic, complicated figure thanks to the plethora of flashbacks. Alexander has a skill for crafting tragic figures, and you can’t get much more tragic than a talented ballerina cut down in her prime.
Alexander’s love and knowledge of ballet itself are unquestioned, and she imbues Katenka and Irusya with the passion and conviction of true professionals. The sequences devoted to the girls’ performances and study are easily the most compelling.
Lady Emily remains a supremely confident and nosy investigator; she sometimes verges on annoying in her narrative asides, but there are enough dashes of light humor and pathos to keep her from becoming too much of a caricature.
As for the supporting cast, Cécile—Emily’s delightfully opinionated French confidante, a woman of a certain age who only drinks champagne—is woefully underused. Foxy husband Colin doesn’t do much, off-screen for much of the proceedings on his secretive mission to keep the English-born empress safe. Thank goodness for Sebastian, who provides much of the humor and remains as ridiculous and daring as always. This time around, he’s disguised as a Cossack and, of course, has to turn to Emily when he gets himself into hot water again.
“I helped you when you required it and I humbly beg you to do the same for me.”
He had me there. In difficult straits, I had summoned him to my parents’ house in Kent a few Christmases ago, when a rare jewel belonging to the Maharaja Ala Kapur Singh disappeared. Not only had Sebastian offered his assistance, he had subtly tormented my mother in a manner that brought me incalculable happiness.
Should this admission horrify you, you have never met my mother.
Death in St. Petersburg’s greatest strength lies in its setting: both turn-of-the-century Russia and the ballet stage. The pistachio-colored estates of princes are vivid in your mind as you read, the winter atmosphere so tangible you can almost feel the snow. At the same time, the deep paranoia of the time is everywhere as characters worry about being exiled to Siberia, thrown into prison, or tortured by police for even the hint of subversive leanings.
Alexander does a great job balancing the glittering beauty of ballet—with its sparkling tiaras and graceful pirouettes—with the grittier behind the scenes details of painful practices and the impoverished conditions most ballerinas lived in. Those flowers and jewels from wealthy men often came with a price, and a normal life of marriage and children was impossible for those truly devoted to the craft.
As is becoming common in these later entries of the series, Death in St. Petersburg is more of a historical story than an outright mystery, though there’s some action-packed excitement in the climax. If you’ve enjoyed Lady Emily up to this point, this may not completely satisfy—but it won’t disappoint, either. It’s a solid, relatively enjoyable read as the days grow shorter and a chill settles in.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.